What are the biggest issues that are currently affecting the social mobility of young people in the professional world?

We’re in a really tricky time right now for social mobility.

Our outlook as an organisation is that talent, skills and capability can exist in any part of the country, any environment and any family. And yet, social mobility is in decline. There was a slow downward trend before the pandemic. But now, the extent to which your background determines your educational and career outcomes is more significant than ever.

The pandemic sliding immediately into a cost-of-living crisis has meant, to put it bluntly, that children and young people are poorer. The number of poor young people is on the rise. And young people who are growing up in poverty are seeing the gap between themselves and their more privileged peers grow ever wider.

This is critical from a business perspective. The leaders who read this blog will all be thinking about what they can do to make their organisations thrive. Social mobility is crucial to that. Talent is everywhere – and we know that firms do better when they have a broad range of perspectives in the room. If you are doing anything with, or for, people or other businesses, you cannot afford to serve only a narrow slice of the population.

You cannot close down particular roots of talent just because some individuals haven’t been to university or grown up in affluent areas. Your pipelines must be wide open – because no one has enough good people right now. And that means looking at apprentices, graduates and career entrants in the round. And don’t forget the opposite perspective: retention now hinges upon employees’ expectations that employers will be purposeful and inclusive.

What should employers be doing to tackle these issues?

Firstly, it is vital to recognise that social mobility must be high on your agenda. There are still too many organisations in too many sectors where it’s not part of the conversation.

Some firms have simply not acknowledged that they have a social mobility problem. Some have admitted they have a problem, but it's not a priority until they've solved some other ones first. Some know they have an issue, but don’t know what to do about it. It is time to make social mobility a priority.

The starting point is harnessing background data on your workforce to give yourself a baseline. Ask yourself as an organisation: “Where are we? How do we compare to peers in our sector? Is our sector significantly different to other sectors? If so, how – and why?”

That requires your organisation to emphasise sincerity. Staff won’t share that personal information with you unless they trust your intent. This is important, because social mobility is not a protected characteristic. It hardly ever turns up in standard diversity surveys.

Unless that trust is in place, questions about which jobs your parents did when you were growing up, or the kind of school you went to, or whether you were eligible for free school meals, can all feel rather intrusive.

Business leaders have to get comfortable with talking about social mobility. Some may have to get comfortable with talking about their own privilege and be able to recognise what they need to do to change. Or conversely, with being a role model for a lack of privilege, if they themselves were disadvantaged.

This is awkward, personal stuff – topics for which people don’t always have a language. But once you get a conversation going, it can be incredibly powerful and becomes an essential part of success. I’ve seen it so many times when a leader in an organisation is open about their own struggles, and members of staff raise their hands and say, “I thought I was the only one.” It’s so inspiring. This is why it is so important to be open to these kinds of conversations to create a more welcoming and inclusive working environment.

It’s interesting: some disadvantaged young people feel very sensitive to, and weighed down by, a stigma – but others seem to relish kicking against that stigma.

Absolutely. The young people we work with on our various programmes are in broadly similar, socioeconomic positions – so, they’re either on free school meals, in a school with a high free school meals population or are the first generation in their families ever to go to university. So, the odds are set against them.

But the extent to which they find those factors either challenging or motivating differs wildly. We have young people who delight in being the first person in their family to get somewhere first – they want to be ground breaking, they want to be pioneers, they want to challenge perceptions and are excited about that. And we have others who just want some support and help because they know they need it.

But they all have one thing in common: they don’t want to be defined by what they don’t have.

What sort of role should mentoring play in that context?

A fundamental one. It’s a major part of the programmes we run for young people, and makes such a huge difference.

At first, it’s not the part of our offering that draws young people to us. By and large, they come to us because they know we can help them secure opportunities for work experience – or they’re looking for support with university or job applications. So, they’re not necessarily excited, or even clear, about what a mentor may offer them.

However, when we speak to young people at the end of our programmes, they often say that mentoring was the thing that really made the difference – that it was inspiring to have support and encouragement from someone whose only motivation was for them to be successful. And that’s the crucial asset that mentors bring – they’re there to help you think and work through your challenges. They’re not pressuring you to apply for a particular job or take a particular course – and they’re not trying to sell you anything.

It's also through mentoring that young people are given an opportunity to really work out their story. The questions they’ll be thinking about may be: “How do I show that I’ve got great problem-solving skills?” or “How do I demonstrate my passion for working in the law, or sustainability, or engineering?”

Mentoring helps young people focus not on the experience they haven’t yet acquired, or the network connections they don’t yet have – but the capabilities and character that are already part of who they are.

Importantly, the inspiration flows both ways. Our mentors are all established professionals in various different sectors and, on many occasions, they’ve come to us and said: “If my mentee, who’s brilliant, is finding it hard to secure work in organisations like mine, then we’re clearly doing something wrong.”

Voices from our community: Sarah Atkinson is CEO of the Social Mobility Foundation